Good Biography of Lamar Hunt

huntDespite an uninspiring writing style this is a very solid biography of Lamar Hunt.  Better yet, I learned a good deal about Lamar Hunt I didn’t know.  Most readers will recognize Lamar Hunt as one of the found fathers of the American Football League which competed directly with the well-established National Football League.  After a rather successful half decade the Hunt was then instrumental in the merger of the two leagues, creating the modern, NFL we know today.

Lamar Hunt was born not with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but many golden spoons.  His father was a billionaire and Hunt inherited a vast amount of wealth that allowed him to pursue his own dreams and goals with little concern about the financial consequences.  He fell in love with football in college and as an adult desperately wanted to own an NFL team but was spurned by the old guard.  So Hunt did the next best thing, he found a group of like-minded men and created his own football league.

While getting a professional football league up and running and successful against the established, old school NFL was a daunting challenge, Hunt managed to do just that.  And despite eventually having to move his inaugural Dallas franchise to Kansas City, his team and his league thrived.  So much so, that eventually the NFL was compelled to merge with the AFL to avoid escalating player salaries and competition for television viewers.

The most interesting thing about Hunt through all this was his decency and humanity.  Unlike many who didn’t earn but were handed vast amounts of wealth who slid into slovenly habits and narcissism, Hunt was considered by his peers to be very nice, decent man and one who worked hard at his passion – sports.  Even during the intensive rivalry with the NFL’s expansion franchise the Dallas Cowboys, he managed to stay friendly with Dallas’s other billionaire football owner Clint Murchison.

The other amazing thing about Lamar Hunt was the other sports he was passionate about and some he helped get off the ground.  For example he was an original minority owner of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.  He helped create the modern open era tennis by co-founding the World Championship Tennis circuit and is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  Finally, Hunt is instrumental in first bringing professional soccer to the United States as an owner of a Dallas professional soccer franchise, despite it rankling owners in the NFL.  While the league eventually collapsed, it was the precursor to today’s Major League Soccer.

The story of Hunt and the AFL-NFL merger is well told in other places but this biography also does that seminal event justice, while expanding ones knowledge of just how instrumental Hunt was in the sports world in general.

While the writing lacks a lot to be desired, the content is worth the effort.

Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports

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The Galloping Ghost: A Well Done Biography of Harold “Red” Grange

GrangeThis is a very well done biography of Harold “Red” Grange, a seminal figure in the history of professional football. He literally burst onto the scene has a halfback at the University of Illinois and is considered one of the greatest college football players of all time. The highlight of his college career was scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Michigan in 1924, which made his name nearly a household word. By the time his college career was over his name recognition in the United States was, for that era, like a Michael Jordan. His college career spanned from 1923 to 1925 and in those days it was the sportswriters and newspapers that were preeminent in conveying the sights and sounds of sports, which was not without a bit of hyperbole. Sportswriters like Grantland Rice did much to make Grange into a larger than life figure, and another sportswriter dubbed him “The Galloping Ghost.”

Grange is likely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as much for what he did to bring recognition to pro football as he is for what he did on the field. In the 1920’s college football was very popular and seen as an honorable and “amateur” endeavor. Pro football was seen as grimy, violent, and filled with ne’er do wells and ruffians. Many did not want Grange to sully his name and reputation by playing professional football. But with what might be the first real football agent, C.C. Pyle and Chicago Bears owner George Halas, Grange signed a hefty contract to play with the Chicago Bears in 1925.

Grange brought immediate legitimacy to pro football and was a major draw at the gate. One of the most ridiculous although lucrative activities was a 19 game barnstorming tour in 67 days. That is on average a game every 3.5 days! Playing such a violent and physically demanding game on a schedule like that borders on insanity but Halas and C.C. Pyle were thinking about the gate receipts not the health of the players.

After a contract dispute C.C. Pyle and Grange formed their own league and Grange’s team was the New York Yankees. That lasted all of one year. And unfortunately in 1927 Grange suffered a serious knee injury, and of course back then sports medicine was crude. From the accounts in the book it may have even been an ACL tear but after sitting out a year Grange went back to the Bears and played through the 1934 season. But he doesn’t appear to be the same player as he was before and often played only a few downs in games just to appease crowds who came to see him play.

Grange’s was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 1963.

After his career Grange did a variety of jobs including speaking engagements and sports broadcasting.

There are two very interesting aspects of this biography that the author does a good job of exploring.

One is the impact that Grange’s name recognition and image had on the reputation of pro football. It was very significant. The author reminds us just how famous Grange was in the 1920’s because of his football exploits. He was able to parlay that into a lot of endorsements as well. He was one of the most widely recognized sports figures of his era.

Another is C.C. Pyle. He clearly was a bit of a con man but played the role of Grange’s agent well and seems to have treated Grange fairly in their business dealings. It would appear that he is the first player agent in pro football but I am entirely sure of that. At the very least he was the first prominent one.

Overall this was a well done and very interesting biography of an iconic figure in professional football.

The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

 

Review of Bill Parcells: A Football Life

parcellsThis “autobiography” of Bill Parcells is certainly fascinating, as any biography of such a character should be. Character is a good word to describe Parcells, as he is a character. Arrogant, sarcastic, demanding, profane, psychologist, restless and successful are just a few of the adjectives that describe one of the best professional football coaches of the modern era.

I have always been fascinated by people who make sports their life calling, especially one as demanding as being the head coach or executive of a National Football League team. Parcells has been one of the best with a unique and not always likable style.

This biography does a great job of providing the background of Parcells’s growing up and how being a self-described Jersey guy has colored his personality. His dedication to football and being a football coach is evident in his hopping from job to job at small schools in the college ranks, constantly moving his family and working for little pay hoping for bigger and better opportunities. The demands of his job and the constant moving eventually cost him his marriage, which unfortunately is not that uncommon for coaches. Parcells’s life has certainly been defined by football.

Bill Parcels really made his stamp on football immortality as the head coach of the New York Giants whom he lead from a bad team to two time Super Bowl champion grounded in the philosophy of a strong defense and solid running game. His time with the Giants was not always without its stresses. Parcells was furious when he found out General Manager George Young was essentially looking to get rid of him after his first season, one which saw the team go 3-12. Between the lines it appears Parcells never really got over that.

After eight seasons with the New York Giants and two Super Bowl wins, Parcells stepped down as the head coach. While it is never made clear why he left the Giants, only saying “it was time” he did have a heart condition and it is also clear that Tim Mara selling his share of his team to Robert Tish, ushering in a new ownership group, likely had something to do with this move as well. More than once in the book Parcells exclaims that a change in ownership is a good reason for a coach to leave the organization.

After heart bypass surgery and few years away from coaching, Bill Parcells became the head coach of the New England Patriots.
I am a diehard New England Patriots fan and many of my fellow compatriots do not like Parcells because he left the Patriots in a lurch before Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. This was a pretty terrible thing for Parcells to do because he had been secretly working out a deal to leave for the hated New York Jets, which made him, in some ways, a lame duck head coach going into the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl. It was not quite as bad as the suspension and then reinstatement for the playoffs of New England head coach Chuck Fairbanks in the 1978 season where the team lost to the Houston Oilers in the divisional round lead by a coach on his way out the door and no respect among the players. But it was not an entirely classy move either.

But Bill Parcells did make one key decision that turned around the Patriots franchise and lead us to the Super Bowl. Had he made a different decision, who knows what the future would have held for the franchise. In the 1993 draft there were two quarterbacks that were going to go number one and number two: Drew Bledsoe of Washington State and Rick Mirer of Notre Dame. Parcells chose Bledsoe who went on to become a solid starter and part of the resurgence of a moribund franchise. Rick Mirer, while winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Seattle Seahawks, quickly became a washed up bust. Parcells made the right move. And let’s not forget that Parcells took a terrible team and through the draft, free agent signings, and his leadership turned it into a playoff contender.

And then there is the ownership situation. Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots in 1994 and Parcells was part of the previous regime. It appears that Parcells did not give Kraft the respect he deserved as owner, as mostly what Parcells wanted from ownership would appear to be to just stay out of his way. Kraft, on the other hand, was probably a bit too meddlesome in football operations, which is highlighted by the Patriots selecting Ohio State wider receiver Terry Glenn in the first round of the 1996 draft, against the wishes of Parcells. This is probably the beginning of the end of Parcells’s stay in New England.

Bill Parcells went on to turnaround the Jets organization and make them into a contender and fostering a heated rivalry with the New England Patriots who got several New York Jets’ draft choices because of the way Parcells left the Patriots. After leaving coaching and being an executive with the Jets, Parcells again stepped down.

But like The Terminator, he’d be back, surprisingly with one of the most meddlesome owners in the league, Jerry Jones. He then turned around another ailing franchise, although not with quite the dramatic impact he had in his previous stints. But he did put the Cowboys on the right track after a four year tenure there.

Parcells’s final act was as the head of football operations for the Miami Dolphins where he tried to piece back the organization through hiring the right coaches and the draft. He didn’t have quite the success with the Dolphin’s as he did at other stops but they were certainly in a better place when he left than when he came. The wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Next I want to turn to a few of the major themes of the book that interest me the most.

Does Bill Parcells deserve to be in the National Football League Hall of Fame?

There were several detractors to Parcells Hall of Fame candidacy. The reasons included his less than spectacular overall record of 172-130-1. His job hopping didn’t help his candidacy as some wanted to make sure if elected he didn’t go back into coaching and possibly harm is legacy. He didn’t stay with any one team long enough, except maybe the Giants, to truly establish a dominant legacy with any one team. The most ridiculous argument is that Bill Belichick was with him during his most successful years.

Bill Parcells without a doubt belongs in the Hall of Fame. You can’t even think about the history of the NFL from 1983 to today without Bill Parcells’s being a major part of the story. He won two Super Bowls. And he turned around the fates of four franchises.

He also left an extensive coaching tree include Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Sean Payton, all Super Bowl winners and many others who have been coaches in the professional and college ranks.

Relationship with Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick was the contractual heir to the New York Jets head coaching job when Bill Parcells stepped down in 1999. But in one of the most bizarre resignation speeches ever, Belichick jilted Parcells and the Jets to take the head coaching job with, of all teams, the New England Patriots. This lead to falling out over what heretofore had seemed to be an extremely strong bond as Parcells brought Belichick along with him everywhere he went and they had great success together. Parcells take on it was “a deal is a deal.”

Here I think Parcells is being a bit disingenuous and inconsistent. First, the way he left New England was a bit classes and he two broke his contractual obligations which lead to a brokering of a deal giving New England several of the Jets draft choices. Second, Parcells himself said that a change in ownership is a good reason for a head coach to be concerned and leave a job and the Jets had just been sold to a new owner.
I suspect, although this has never been stated, that Belichick also wanted to be his own man and since Parcells was set to be head of football operations and still his boss, and he didn’t want Big Bill constantly looking over his shoulder at his coaching decisions and being meddlesome.
I think Parcells feelings were just hurt. It was good to see that they have mended their fences since then.

Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft

Another difficult relationship that has since seemed to be repaired is the bad relationship Kraft had with Parcells when he took over the ownership of the New England Patriots. Parcells’s famous line “if they want you to cook the dinner, they ought to let you buy some of the groceries” is a classic. Of course a coach wants a strong say over the draft and other roster acquisitions and Kraft not handing more of the personnel responsibilities over to Parcells was a mistake. Parcells, on the other hand, did not communicate well with Kraft and presumably left in him in the dark and even had intermediaries speaking on his behalf. This is not a healthy way to run a football team. Both made mistakes. This is another relationship I am happy to see, if not fully patched up, at least each acknowledging mistakes were made and both regretting how the parting of Parcells from the team came about.

Conclusion

The one quibble I have with this book is the prose is not always as clear as it could be and sometimes I had to read something twice because of it. It was also written in the third person, which was a bit odd, but I eventually got used to it. Parcells voice is loud and clear in the book, nevertheless.

Overall I would heartily recommend the book to any NFL fan as it tells the “Football Life” of one of the most interesting and important coaches in the history of the game.

Parcells: A Football Life

 

Review of Bill Polian’s The Game Plan

untitledBill Polian’s The Game Plan is a mixed bag for this reader. Much of what he talks about in the book is either common sense or a bit dry, especially when he goes through the process of hiring a coach or choosing Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf as the number one pick in the draft. Even the talent evaluation sections seem a bit mundane.

Where the book is most interesting and engaging is where he talks about his stints with the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and his time building the Indianapolis Colts. His chapter on finally convincing Jim Kelly to sign and play in Buffalo and the construction of a team that went to the Super Bowl four times in a row (and lost) was quite interesting and Polian clearly has a soft spot in his heart for his tenure with the Bills and coach Marv Levy.

Equally engaging is when he talks about his time with the Colts and clearly points out the implications of the salary cap on a team’s construction. There is only so much money to go around so once the Colts decided to build a superior offense around Payton Manning, meaning you also had to spend more money on that side of the ball, the salary cap hampered what they were able to do on the defensive side of the ball. Tony Dungy was the right coach for the Colts because his defensive scheme allowed for players who didn’t need to be superstars. But nonetheless, the history of that team shows you that the defense was always we weak link with the exception of a few outstanding players.

Being an avid NFL fan I am glad I read the book but only found parts of it particularly interesting – those parts being the personal stories about the personalities and teams he was involved with.

The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team

The 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers: Then and Now

17383116Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers Then and Now by Gary Pomerantz
Simon and Schuster (October 29, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1451691629
ISBN-13:  978-1451691627
480 pages

The 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers are an iconic dynasty in the modern era of professional football.  Typically defense wins championships and Pittsburgh had some of the best defensive players ever to don pads and cleats.  But they also had some playmakers on the offensive side of the ball like Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth.  And let’s give Terry Bradshaw his due for slowly becoming a team leader and competent enough quarterback to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls in six years.

Gary Pomerantz has gone back and takes a look at this dynastic team from the point of view of the players who made it all happen all those many years ago.  You can truly see the deep bond many of the players developed for a lifetime, particularly on the defensive side the ball, and the importance of that team’s legacy to the not just the players, but the city of Pittsburgh itself.

Central to the book is how Franco Harris became so deeply ingrained in the community becoming a local hero, philanthropist, and businessman.  He also talks about some of the more tragic stories such as the unfortunate decline in health, both physical and mental, of Mike Webster, one of the best centers ever to play the game.  And the great affection and brotherhood that marked the best defensive line in NFL history – Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Crazy Ernie Holmes comes to life as they remember the glory of the past.

Pomerantz was a journalist who covered the Steeler’s in the seventies.  One of the oddest comments in the books introduction is this disillusion with professional football because of brain trauma and the recent studies about the plight of many former players.  Fair enough.  Thankfully the book is well balanced and doesn’t drone on about this topic other than when discussion Mike Webster.

For any football fan this is a book well worth reading and it is a must read for Pittsburgh Steeler’s fans.

Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now

The 1985 Chicago Bears from a Fan’s Perspective

untitledThis is a book written about the 1985 Chicago Bears from a fan’s perspective.  The fans of the Chicago Bears in their 40s today have a dearth of positive experiences to hang their hat on.  They have mostly been in the cold purgatory of failure and embarrassment.  Thus the 1985 Chicago Bears is not only deeply nostalgic for their faithful fans, but the only positive highlight of the Super Bowl era Bears.

I found the fan’s perspective and the author relaying his chance to actually attend the Super Bowl and his reminisces about being a hard luck Bear’s fan a very engaging aspect of the book.  He does a great job of showing what it was like to be a young “adult” in 1985 and experience the excitement of being able to see his favorite team in the Super Bowl.  At the time this eager young cub thinks every football season will be just like “this one” with the Bears winning and competing for championships. Then years later that bitter realization that it was all just a brief fling followed by signs of promise but failure, then slippage into perpetual hibernation.

Cohen does a fantastic job of telling the story of the 1985 Bears from the player’s perspectives too.  The hatred between Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense and its goal of taking out the “head” or quarterback, the defiant Jim McMahon, and the rotund and entertaining William “The Refrigerator Perry, and let’s not forget that dreadful Super Bowl shuffle.  Then on a sadder note, Walter Payton’s anger over not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl is addressed too.

And finally the book does a fine job of getting the reminisces of many of the Bears’ players years removed from their glory season.  From quarterback Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, Gary Fencik, and Steve McMichael, among others, we understand how deeply important that one glorious season was to their legacy.  And then to be acknowledged as the greatest defense of all-time just put icing on the cake.

While I am not a Chicago Bears fan I did enjoy the book.   It is a must read for Bears fans and a fun read for football fans, especially those who remember Super Bowl XX.

 
Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football

Rob Gronkowski and the Gronks

1aa-volumes24----aug--24-art-gc1ob63b-1growing-up-gronk-schober-bkGrowing Up Gronk: A Family’s Story of Raising Champions by Gordy Gronkowski with Jeff Schober
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 9, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0544126688
ISBN-13: 978-0544126688
224 pages

I really don’t know why anyone would be particularly interested in this book, unless maybe they are a diehard New England Patriots fan, like me.  It is mostly a vanity project for Gordy Gronkowski, the father of five amazing athletes.  His five sons have all achieved a great deal of success in sports, with three making to the National Football League, one who played professional baseball, and the youngest is an up and coming star in his own right.

This book talks about how his sons achieved that success.  Beyond being naturally gifted athletes Gordy appears to be a somewhat obsessed workout junkie and had his five sons competing with each other in the basement using a workout regime created by Gordy himself.  He created five workout junkies in his own image who were motivated by their father but also by their competition with each other.  This healthy competition resulted in a clan of professional athletes.

The book also provides some details on what their family life was like growing up and how their incredible mother managed to rein in five Gronks (six if you count the father) and cook and clean and drive them around to all their various sporting events.  She is a bit in the background in the book, for the most part, but clearly a hero in her own right.

While the book is not just about Rob Gronkowski he does get more air time here, which is only fair as he is the most successful of the five Gronks.  As a tight end for the New England Patriots he’s had a few monster seasons and could potentially be one of the greatest tight ends of all time.  Unfortunately, his history of injuries, especially recently, will probably derail that dream.  He is described as a bit of a fun loving goofball but a hard worker dedicated to being his best.  But the rest of the brothers get their just due as well and we get a glimpse into the personalities of each.

I did enjoy the read but only because of the Rob Gronkowski angle.  I otherwise would have found it a waste of time and not that interesting.

Growing Up Gronk: A Family’s Story of Raising Champions